Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Interrogative remarks followed by statements that involve various forms of punctuation.

I've been meaning to type up something illuminating the process behind HS since the end of Act 2. I tend to stay pretty tight-lipped about it in the news section, since I'd honestly rather spend time making it than yapping about it all day. But hey I still realize that now and then I should strive to descend from above the stage, perched on my moon-shaped swing with my legs all a kickin' and swayin', and with ukelele cradled to my bosom, let you folks in on my FEELINGS.

But I just couldn't get up the gumption to sit down and COMPOSE with a capital C, and some other capitalized letters, some serious self-contained literary piece on the subject. So instead I just opened up a Q&A session in the MSPA community and this is how it went.

Some of these answers are pretty long. I guess because I like to pretend what I do is complicated and nuanced.

Are user commands really affecting all that much? Other than the occasional "Squawk like an imbecile and shit on your desk" command.

They are, but their influence is not always obvious.

A command is actually a pretty superficial thing. It is only supposed to influence the present panel through a single atomic action. It shouldn't serve the function of aa command like "Plot: Take a certain direction I have in mind." A command can't try to do too much, but they often do. With this sort of thing, there will always be tension between the author and the suggestors, whose main purpose is to leave their distinctive personal stamp on the story, and as a result, often resort to the outlandish, the overly elaborate, or the non sequitur. These are fine to embrace in small doses, but they are poison to a cohesive story if resorted to regularly.

Consequently, actions of a more straightforward variety become favored, and the appearance which follows is that the user voice has been diminished. This is compounded with a great abundance of commands. A simple example. The hero approaches three doors. Which will you choose? Obviously all three doors will be suggested with a large enough pool of suggestors, plus plenty of clever non sequitur "option D" commands. Knowing this, which door the hero goes through was always up to the author, whether he pre-planned it, or merely delayed the decision until the suggestions were made.

This principle is in play even with more complicated examples. A room full of objects. What will you do? For all intents, every possibility will be suggested. When the author knows he will have the field of ALL POSSIBILITY to choose from, it begins to mirror a more conventional writing process. That is what a writer does. He sits at his desk, combing through the field of all possibility in his mind, and arrives at the specific. This situation naturally leads to more pre-planning, and the greater appearance of marginalizing user input. But it is not a slight to the user. It is the nature of the creative process, rearing its head through this format.

Any remark like "This story is not user-driven enough," I believe is code for "This story is not haphazard enough." The wild and unusual commands are the ones that really make it feel like a gaggle of whimsical readers is in charge, imbuing the narrative with a sense of freedom, a feeling that the hero could do truly anything. The essence of freedom in this sense is the uncompromising subjugation of restraint. It is possible that this is also the exact opposite of what a good story requires! Regardless, the truth is almost all the commands are user suggestions, even the vanilla ones, which soften the voice of the user. Some are commands of a certain type I was looking for in advance, to push the action in a direction I had in mind. That is fairly unavoidable. To avoid it all the time would be unnatural, like a lobotomization of the creative process for the sake of maniacal adherence to a gimmick. But probably more often than not, I select commands on a whim, without any such narrative agendas.

I've kicked the tires on this format pretty aggressively. I've done the "pick the first command no matter what" thing, with its stream of consciousness results. I've kept the command selection more sedate and rational at times. And there are some stretches when I'm practically oblivious to the suggestion box, such as one or two week periods where my sole focus is on intensive animation chores, and the last thing on my mind is "How can I get the readers more involved at the helm of this story??" At times there gets to be a point where, with a story of this scope, the author can start to hear himself say, "Oh great guys, just what I need. More funny ideas!" The format, if nothing else, has a way of turning the author into a firehose of ideas, or at least it seems to for me. It sounds counter-intuitive, but eventually the best way to advance a story starts to be seeking strategies to curtail the endless stream of novelty, and slow the idea machine down a bit. I've done this at times by diminishing the influence of commands.

The introduction of the Wayward Vagabond as the command voice was an example of this. More on that topic later.

How much do you have planned in advance right now?

It's hard to quantify. It helps to understand what planning actually means in this context.

When you do something like this, it seems like the attitude of many readers is that the action should be almost entirely extemporaneous, or at least be sold to feel that way. Otherwise, why bother implementing user input at all? When evidence of planning becomes exposed, it carries the appearance of cheating in a way. Like an improv comic, who largely relies on the appearance of being off the cuff for his act to feel authentic. If the audience catches on that some of the material was prepared in advance, or that the go-to jokes are applicable regardless of what suggestion is shouted from the crowd, it loses something.

But I'm not actually that concerned with this issue. It's not a problem. Just an observation.

The long and short is, some very big picture stuff is planned in advance, and has been since page 1. In particular, various SYSTEMS were planned. Systems related to how the game works, how items are manufactured, how the environment is manipulated, aspects of the virtual universe they enter, and the ultimate purpose of the game. These are systems, but systems alone do not a plot make.

When it comes to plot elements, very little planning is done, and practically none at all before page 1. A good example of the story taking an unanticipated turn is the post-apocalyptic elements, which I really had no idea I'd be getting into from the start. It felt like a necessary dynamic to add to the gaming system to help raise the stakes in the story. It was actually influenced by the various apocalyptic movie posters in John's room, and the discussions they had about them. Those were not planted in advance as foreshadowing, because there was nothing yet to foreshadow. Retroactive foreshadowing is a pretty common occurrence with projects like this. It often solidifies the illusion of planning. This was a case where some trivial nonsense I injected into the story turned out to be extremely relevant. Sometimes that happens with my own nonsense, sometimes it happens with reader-supplied nonsense.

But assuming there is some element of planning - and there is - the only issue remaining is how far in advance does story planning occur? That's why the subject of planning vs. extemporaneous story building is tricky. Plans don't exist... UNTIL SUDDENLY THEY DO! For example, there was a time when Jade (then known as "GG") made casual reference to having a pet, and a grandfather. These simple facts become a lock in the story, and it would be months until those details were elaborated upon. In the passing months, while I attend to other parts of the story, I have no choice but to dwell on those things she casually mentioned, and think about who they are, and how they fit into the bigger picture. This is certainly a form of planning, and the reader was witness to the plan's conception. And though technically, plot details which are sat on and incubated for months can no longer be considered extemporaneous, the ideas sure were extemporaneous when they were first mentioned!

This is exactly how most things end up being "planned". A concept is dropped on the reader, and then goes into hiding for a while. I think about it in the shadows. But even then, I deliberately keep the planned aspects a little vague and open-ended, so they can be modified to fit the details of the story when the time comes. This was especially evident when I started replaying certain Pesterchum conversations, from the other character's vantage in the past. At one point Dave was complaining about puppets. You could only picture what was going on at his end. In fact, I didn't even know, and I didn't really want to know. I let his narrative catch up to that point, then molded the events to match his side of the conversation. Again, the illusion of planning arises.

That's what I do with every concept introduced. I try to keep it a little generalized and flexible, something I can return to later with more refinement, and mix with user input. That was the driving paradigm behind all the game systems. Everywhere you look with the game systems, you see inherent flexibility. The ability to combine items with other items. The ability to prototype a Kernelsprite with anything, twice. The ability to manipulate a house in almost any way.

The philosophy here is two-fold. The obvious side of it is, it allows readers a more built-in means of influencing the world we create here. But the less obvious motivation, and maybe the more important one, is that it helps spark the imagination of the reader. The story, ultimately, can only go down the path it goes down. But before it does, the reader can understand these game mechanics, and speculate on all the possibilities. What sort of objects would you combine if you were playing the game? What would you prototype with? What kind of villains would that create? There are millions of different versions of the game that could be played, a unique instance for each player. This is all theoretically supposed to be part of the fun.

Have you ever gotten ideas from the forum but not the suggestion box?

Yes, and in fact it's safe to say I get most ideas from the forum community at this point. At least more of the major story changing ideas come from there, while the suggestion box plays the role of driving the page-by-page action.

When I integrated the suggestion box into a forum instead of a comments page, thus sparking a pretty vital community of story discussion, it changed a lot about how I interface with user input. Discussion and speculation about the story is much more engaging and nuanced than user commands can be, which are generally along the lines of "Do this. It will be funny."

There have been a few times where I've read theories people are throwing around, and I'll just run with it in the story. Most often it will be a case where I was vaguely entertaining the same notion, but hadn't yet committed to it, and seeing it vocalized as speculation tips the scale in the idea's favor.

One example I can think of is when people were trying to guess what Jade's grandfather's interests would be. People often try to make guesses about this sort of thing, because I tend to establish a lot of patterns, like each guardian having a kooky collection, each kid having a certain primary weapon and instrument, each kid potentially corresponding to a future desert-dweller, and so on. I then either adhere to the pattern, or disregard it, almost arbitrarily. This keeps readers on their toes. But in this case, people guessed quite a number of things, including knights, mummies, and game trophies. I ran with those three, plus a pretty strange wildcard interest on top of those to mix it up.

It's hard to think of a lot of good examples of this though, possibly because all sources of inspiration have sort of blurred together. It gets hard to trace back to the origins of many of the ideas.

When did the Wayward Vagabond come into play? Was it something vague like "there's some dude in the future who accidentally stumbles his way into these events somehow", or was he almost entirely just made up as things went along ala the segment we "played" as him? Did you only decide things about him playing part in a grander chess metaphor when you started working with Nanna's exposition? Did you always know that he ended up where Rose once was?

That's a lot of questions! I'll group it all under what I'll dub THE WV UMBRELLA.

WV was introduced, indirectly, at the beginning of Act 2 as another way to experiment with the format. Though the reader didn't know it at the time, WV was issuing the commands instead of the readers. All the readers knew was there was a funny voice controlling John, and that the suggestion box was locked. Or put in a more story-relevant way, the box had been "blown up", a consequence of the meteor impact. The image in the box was replaced with a crater, and in the weeks that followed that crater underwent gradual geological changes. Of course, only those who looked inside the suggestion box were privy to this aspect of the story, but that progression of images would resurface again at the end of Act 2.

The main purpose of the WV command experiment was to take a step back from that tension of the author-user dynamic for a while, and see how that went. The tension being primarily in the struggle to control the direction of the story. With a fictional character at the helm, you not only have a voice that can be more cooperative with advancing the plot (even though he didn't sound that cooperative), but also can be a more distinctive and unified voice of an actual character, with his own yet unknown agenda. It stayed that way for about a month I think. It was interesting for a while, but in the end I decided it wasn't the best way to drive the story in the long run, so I reverted to business as usual.

But the plan with WV, from the first command he issued, was that eventually he would become a playable character. I thought he would be playable (i.e. taking user commands) while the kids' actions remained buffered in that way. Of course it didn't quite pan out like that. They all became playable at once, each with his/her own suggestion box. But the difference with WV was that I made a concerted effort never to plan anything about his story arc. In fact, I've been pretty religious about keeping everything that happens in the post-apocalypse arcs as unplanned as possible. I don't think about it until I have to. So WV's story evolved very organically, entirely through cues from reader commands, much like the beginning of Problem Sleuth. But unlike Problem Sleuth, he existed in a world full of already well established story elements, so the whimsical material sort of collided with the more intricate storyline that had developed. So I could use his slapdash shenanigans to continue to expose layers of the mythology behind the greater story, like the chess metaphor and the kingdoms, all sort of indirectly through chalk drawings and cans of Tab and such. His arc was one of the more fun to execute for this reason.

His involvement was pretty spur of the moment, a way to drastically mix things up. There was no grand architecture to it at all, other than "he will issue commands, and then later, users will issue commands for him." But given that, I'm surprised by how his involvement made Act 2 feel like a fairly cohesive piece overall. It began with him finding the underground bunker in a wasteland. We knew nothing of him other than what a few cranky directives indicated about him. We watched him learn and develop, and later, in interacting with him directly, he supplied some reasons to like him and root for him. And finally at the end of the act, he blasts off in that bunker he found to open the act, and we see sequences that tie back to the end of Act 1, such as the meteor collision with John's house, and the geological evolution of the crater that taunted anyone who tried to make a suggestion for a month.

Of course, these sequences raised more questions than they answered. After all, it was only Act 2.

Do you have any idea when you plan to wrap up Homestuck, or are you going to let it go until it reaches its natural conclusion?

Originally I thought it would run for a year, like PS did. From 04/13/09 to 04/13/10.

But that seems unrealistic now. It has taken a lot longer to get the story revved up than I thought. This is largely due to experimenting with and taking the time to master different media, like Flash. But also due to the more general and universally applicable principal: EVERYTHING WILL TAKE LONGER THAN YOU THINK IT WILL, ALWAYS. I never planned to run PS for a year from the start. It just worked out that way. If I had, it probably would have taken two years.

What I'm thinking now is, 04/13/10 will still be a key date. The story will build to something critical on that date. But then it will keep going for a while longer, to allow it to wrap up more naturally. Whether this is for another year, or less, I can't say. But I'd rather it not be more.

Do you know how Homestuck's going to end? And what do you think the next adventure might be?

I definitely don't. And I'm not even sure if there will be a next adventure.

The nature of this site's output is very fluid. The execution of content is quite different from what it was even one year ago (though still stylistically similar). Exactly one year divides this update and this update.

If I was showed the latter example one year ago, and was told to produce stuff like that in any sustainable way, I probably would have said that sounded kinda crazy! But that was before this self-imposed gauntlet of working with Flash and figuring out more efficient animation strategies.

But watching the site evolve to support that type of content has me thinking it will just keep evolving. The broadest purpose of the site is to serve as a sort of accelerator for my abilities as a creator. At least in retrospect, that is the purpose it's served. By the time I'm ready to move on to a new adventure, the footing may have shifted so much, it may not even be an "adventure" as we know it. Regardless, I'm sure there'll be something to follow, and I'll keep producing content.

Unless I decide to be a douche and just up and quit. We'll see.

When did the first defined concept of homestuck hit you?

At some point during the last few months of working on PS. The inspiration centered around a simple scene I had in my head, and not much else. I pictured a kid playing a game in his room, while another player manipulated his room the way you edit an environment in The Sims. I pictured the kid being able to manipulate the other kid's environment too, but it wasn't long before I latched on to the potential conflict present in one kid strictly being at the mercy of the other. Over time I came up with other game mechanics to complement this, and add some degree of purpose. In this time I also developed this image of a story template that combined an RPG like Earthbound with games like The Sims and Spore. Even now that still seems like a pretty good way to describe Homestuck, though the story didn't unfold the way I pictured at all.

I also designed all four characters shortly before I started HS. I didn't know much about these characters at the time, other than some really vague personality profiles. Users named them as they were introduced.

Did you have names to refer to the characters before they were named by the users, and what were these names if there were any?

No, but they did always have their Pesterchum handles before they were named.

Was 'Homestuck' the only title you had in mind for Homestuck, or were there other titles you considered but decided not to use?

The only other candidate I considered was "Sburb", which was a sort of deliberately ugly word reminiscent of the name of a Sim game. You could either liken it to Sim-burb, or to Spore, another crude 5-letter word beginning with S. But for that reason, that it's kind of crude and really awkward to say, I thought it was best left as just the name of the game in the game.

Besides, Homestuck better follows the templates of the previous adventure titles, like Jailbreak.

If I remember correctly, the designs we have for the kids were your second attempt. If so, can we see the first designs?

I don't know if I still have the sketch. Probably not. Basically, picture the kids as they are now, but with squarer heads. Like the thugs from PS. It didn't look right.

Did you ever compensate for the age jump from 10 to 13 after the failed beta, or do you still kinda think of all the characters as 10?

First of all, the beta was a success in that it helped illuminate what a horrible idea it was to do 100% of the pages in Flash.

To provide background on this, I started HS on 4/10 at first, using this method. I gave up, restarted on 4/13, with less frequent interspersals of Flash. Through the arbitrarily designated significance of the starting date, it went from a story about 4 10 year olds to one about 4 13 year olds.

To answer: not at all. The age never mattered. There's a tradition in cartooning of ignoring the age of a child when considering his/her demeanor and degree of sophistication. See: Calvin and Hobbes. Cartoon kids will act according to their age when it feels relevant. Other times, they won't.

Maybe the biggest difference in the hop in age is the very slightly added plausibility to speculation on any romantic angle between them. This is very important for fans who aspire to, and are busy even now, shipslashing these characters into oblivion. I have done the world this service.

Are you happy with the level of user input as it is? Do you wish there were more commands? Less commands? Less stupid commands?

I want the commands to be only what they are going to be. There's always going to be a lot of absurdity to sift through, and sometimes, to run with. That's part of the process.

Do you intend to introduce a whole bunch of characters like in PS, and if it's not too specific, will the TrollSlums become significant?

I'm sure there will be plenty more characters when all is said and done. I've got ideas for what to do with the trolls, but as with everything, these plans remain vague until proven specific.

You make a lot of story and update decisions on the fly. Are there any you've regretted?

No. The stakes just aren't high enough for regret to be a factor. The flow of the story is always kept loose and pretty light. Once I've committed something to canon, it becomes a feature of reality. It doesn't need to be judged. Only built upon.

I can see if you are a creator and you are laying down some SERIOUS SHIT, like a really brooding vampire story, or a romance novel or something, the author may operate with a sense of anxiety that mistakes can be made. I will probably never create anything like that.

How do you deal with the inability to go back and change details from earlier in the story? Do you ever have good ideas that you have to scrap because of something that happened earlier on?

This question is related to the one above. It's a non-issue. Once it's cemented in the story, that's it.

I am never disappointed in not getting to use a good idea due to conflict with the facts. First, because ideas that conflict with the facts never actually occur to me. Second, because ideas are a dime a dozen. I have too many as it is.

I know you don't plan out much beyond the most barest of bones, but at what point do you take something and really roll it out?

"Roll it out" could mean a lot of things. The biggest variable here I think is how far in advance. Once a certain concept is committed to, it becomes inevitable to follow through with it via some sort of plan, but it's rarely that far in advance.

Like with the WV sequence, he draws a chess board, and eventually it becomes clear to me he is going to play a simulated game of chess. So I think "Ok, he's already got 16 cans over there which can serve as the major pieces like knights and rooks and such. I'm going to need another 16 pawns, so I'll stick 16 cans of Tab in the other vault." That's a plan committed to in advance by days, or a week, or whatever it was.

But then knowing that, it's a little deceptive what was planned that way, and what wasn't. You might think I stuck the oil and chalk in the room to manufacture those outcomes, the chess game and the wall drawings. Not true at all. The oil, chalk, amber and uranium were stuck in the room strictly as parallels to the four types of known grist. The fact that he used them in those ways was a convenient bonus, and could possibly be viewed as a happy coincidence. Honestly when I drew the firefly in the amber, it never occurred to me that it would be released and become a cute ally.

You could look at these stories, HS and PS mostly, as huge strings of these happy coincidences. When I recognize the potential for those kinds of connectivity, I try to make as much hay out of them as possible.

The kernelsprites seem like a great potential way to let input radically impact the course of the story. Do you have all of the prototypings planned ahead already, or do you intend to leave at least some of them up to reader influence?

There have been significant allusions in the story that certain prototyping outcomes are inevitable. Will this pan out? We'll see. Nothing is set in stone.

But this was always an area where I'd intended readers to have significant influence, and I'm sure it still will be.

Were the Guardians already planned (with designs?) along with the kids, or were they designed later?

All the guardians were drawn a day or two before they first appeared.

And for the really big things (lets say the flash), what's the averageish storyboarding time for it?

Never more than 10 minutes. Spending too much time on storyboarding feels like wasting time I could be spending on the "real" work.

Time spent on actual execution of a Flash animation on average is a day (or a night, more typically). The one requiring the most time was the end of Act 2 animation (obviously, I'm sure), which took something like 3 or 4 days. It's hard to say for sure, because I was making the WV countdown animation that preceded simultaneously.

A cruel irony for me personally is that the longest hiatuses the site has to endure are periods of time over which I am working the hardest.


How much better at Flash would you say you are now than when you started?

Good enough to use it. More than can be said when I started. Speed is the primary dividend of experience for me. It may seem like I'm getting better with the quality of the animation at the same time. But if this is the case I think this mostly results from increased speed. When I learn how to save time, I always tend to apply those time-savings to producing things that are increasingly elaborate. The latter half of Problem Sleuth documented this phenomenon with animated GIFs.

Do you plan to use the same kind of sound effects shown in the first strife page of John for future flash updates?

I think I'm done with the SFX. They're sort of a pain to create and add, and I'm a bit neutral on how they enhance the experience. Later on I might completely change my mind though. Who knows.

What is your favorite color?

I am equally suspicious of all of them, though we begrudgingly collaborate through an uneasy truce.

Did you learn from personal experience, or did someone else warn you about stairs bro!!!!

I fell down some stairs once as a child and have been warning people ever since. It just keeps happening.

Are there any aspects of homestuck that were consciously modeled on real-life experiences you've had? i.e. Do you have a grandmother who would always bake you cookies, etc...

My dad has always been exceptionally doting like John's, and even to this day he tries to give me food in quantities and scenarios which defy rational explanation. Similarities end there though. He's worn a tie maybe once, and has never thrown a pie at me.

A lot of the Pesterchum dialogue is based on my own experience with messaging. Particularly Dave's style is modeled after a chatting style I've cultivated with a number of internet friends. Some of his conversations have been lifted word for word from my own chat logs, modified somewhat for context.

So, I know about the EarthBound parallels, kind of, but what about Mother 3?

I haven't played it. I hardly play any games these days, and all of my gaming knowledge is flash-frozen from around 2005 and earlier. This I imagine is how creators become popculturally dated. They get to the point where they spend so much time making stuff, they no longer have time to interface with popular media of any sort. I figure I have another decade before all my frozen references start seeming legitimately stale, and not in a cool retro way.

Guess that's all I gotsta say for now!